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He is glass-plate positive

A Fresno antique buff is certain that negatives he bought at a garage sale are from the legendary Ansel Adams. It's been a lonely point of view.

April 21, 2007|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

Fresno — RICK NORSIGIAN discovered the object of his obsession one sunny Saturday seven years ago at a garage sale.

A painter for the Fresno school district by day and inveterate antique buff the rest of his waking hours, Norsigian was combing through suburban castoffs when he came across a time-weathered wooden box. The crate was heavy with old glass-plate photographic negatives.

Frozen in early 20th century black and white were sharply detailed shots of Yosemite landmarks, the San Francisco waterfront, Carmel's historic mission and scenic Point Lobos.

Norsigian bought the five dozen negatives for about 75 cents apiece. They were a nice bit of memorabilia, he figured, nothing more.

Still, over the months that followed, when he gingerly pulled the delicate plates out of faded manila envelopes to show friends and relatives, nearly everyone said the same thing: These old glass negatives look like the work of Ansel Adams.

A notion slowly took hold of Norsigian: Perhaps this was a misplaced collection of the American photographic legend's early work. Maybe he had turned up a lost treasure.

Antiques had always been Norsigian's fixation. The 60-year-old grandfather spent a lifetime carting home an oddball collection of old stuff from auctions and estate sales around his Central Valley hometown. His good-natured wife, Pam, drew the line at letting it overflow into the master bedroom and bath.

But nothing amid the home's antique sprawl -- not the vintage gas pump or cylinder phonograph or prized 1909 pool table -- ever hooked him like the glass-plate negatives.

At first, he knew little of Adams, who died in 1984. Norsigian had never been to a photography exhibit. A plain-talking blue-collar guy, he preferred tinkering with his 1928 Ford to visiting museums.

Now, suddenly, he was boning up on all things Ansel. He put away his hot rod magazines and for months pored over a dozen Adams biographies and photo books, footnoting each with Post-it notes.

Page after page yielded coincidences.

Adams, who was born in San Francisco in 1902, worked early in his career with 6 1/2-by-8 1/2-inch glass-plate negatives just like the ones Norsigian had found. During the 1920s he shot mostly in Yosemite and the Sierra but also at San Francisco's Baker Beach near his family home and in Carmel, spots featured in Norsigian's negatives.

In the photo books, Norsigian found several Adams prints resembling his garage-sale negatives.

One negative shows Sentinel Dome's weather-sculpted Jeffrey pine, but at a different angle from what Adams immortalized. Several are tight shots of billowing Nevada Falls, a frequent subject for Adams' lens. Another depicts a gnarled oak tree fronting distant Cathedral Rock. During the 1940s, Adams printed virtually the same picture, but with a shapelier oak in the foreground.

Norsigian's most tantalizing biographical discovery was the 1937 blaze that engulfed Adams' Yosemite darkroom, destroying a third of his work. Some of the Fresno glass plates, he noticed, seemed scorched at the edges.

The man who sold Norsigian the plates in 2000 had told him they came from an abandoned warehouse in Los Angeles. Norsigian learned in his reading that Adams had moved briefly to L.A. in late 1942 to teach.

Sketching a timeline in his mind, he became increasingly convinced that the negatives had been salvaged after the fire, carted to Southern California and then somehow left behind.

"It took me awhile to figure it out -- all the pictures I have, they're trying to tell a story," Norsigian said. "These are early Ansel Adams, before he became famous."


ITCHING for proof, he took a day off from work on a fine spring morning in 2001, packed the pickup with family and a picnic lunch and prints he had made from the negatives and headed up the winding road from Fresno to the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Valley.

Glenn Crosby, the gallery curator, invited Norsigian into a back room while his wife and two grown daughters browsed out front, baby granddaughter Ashley gurgling.

On a big table they spread a dozen photographs printed from the glass plates. Crosby didn't give an opinion but he asked his guest: Would you like to talk to Adams' heirs?

That afternoon, Norsigian drove home excited, sure that the question meant that Crosby had seen the same thing he had.

For months, Norsigian waited. Finally, late that summer, he received a phone call from Jeanne Adams, wife of Ansel's son, Michael. They wanted to come see the negatives firsthand.

When the big day arrived, Pam spent the morning tidying up an already tidy house as Rick battled nerves.

Michael Adams arrived with his wife as the Central Valley heat settled on the Norsigian house. The air conditioner ran hard, but Norsigian found himself sweating. Adams, a retired Air Force officer and physician, declined a soft drink and settled on a couch with his wife.

Norsigian covered the coffee table with prints.

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